In March 1947, as officials from the German Foreign Ministry tried to justify their actions at the Nuremberg Trials, Robert Kempner made a coincidental discovery. Amid the masses of documents left behind by the Nazis, a cover page piqued the curiosity of the assistant US chief counsel. A stamp in red ink is clearly legible on the page: "Secret Reich Matter."
Under the nondescript title "Minutes of Meeting," 15 pages serve as evidence of the systematic execution of European Jews. It is a record of the Wannsee Conference, which took place on January 20, 1942. It is the 16th set of minutes — the only one remaining of a set of 30.
At noon on that day, 15 men who had accepted an invitation from Reinhard Heydrich — head of the dreaded Reich Main Security Office — arrived to a lavish villa in the posh Berlin suburb of Wannsee. The temperature outside was -12 degrees Celsius (10 F), and the frigidness behind what was discussed within the walls of that villa still sends chills down one's spine today.
Guests included SS officers, state secretaries and heads of Nazi administrative authorities. Although the names were not the most familiar ones, almost all the men were young and well-educated. Half of them held a doctoral degree — yet most importantly, every one of them was very ambitious.
For people without a comprehensive knowledge of history, the Wannsee Conference is seen as the committee responsible for the Holocaust. But this is wrong in two ways.
Firstly, no decision was made on that day. Secondly, the mass extermination of Jews had already begun.
Heydrich brought together representatives of all relevant institutions, such as the foreign and transport ministries, to discuss coordination of the planned deportations and mass murders. He also sought to put all of the participating authorities under his leadership.
As recorded in the minutes, this was the group's first act: Heydrich's appointment as commissioner for the "final solution" of the Jewish question in Europe. For him, a major step up the career ladder.
Half a million Jewish victims before the Wannsee Conference
Months before the fateful meeting on January 20, 1942, hundreds of thousands of Jews had already fallen victim to the organized mass extermination of Hitler's "final solution," particularly in parts of the Soviet Union that had been captured by German troops in the summer of 1941.
By the time the Wannsee Conference was held, approximately 500,000 Jews — including women and children — had already met their deaths, mostly by firing squad.
The intention to exterminate Jews had been signaled long before 1942. On January 30, 1939, Hitler had already used a clearly defined vocabulary in his prophecy of the "destruction of international Jewry" in the event of a war.
When the war against the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa) began on June 22, 1941, resulting in large swaths of the region being overrun, within months millions of non-German Jews found themselves living in the realm of Nazi Germany.
Holocaust expert and historian Michael Wildt called this a turning point in the extermination policy for Jews. Simply deporting from the Nazi realm the more than 11 million Jews who were documented in the minutes of the Wannsee Conference was no longer feasible. "In order to get rid of the Jews, the plans became accordingly more monstrous and gigantic," Wildt said.
Coded language, clear intentions
The 15-page minutes do not actually provide details of how the Nazis planned to get rid of the Jews. Though ambiguous, "evacuation to the east" expresses what is meant: Extermination of the Jews.
Years later, Adolf Eichmann, a leading collaborator of Heydrich and participant in the Wannsee Conference, openly confessed this. During his trial in Jerusalem in 1961, Eichmann recounted events in the villa. He said, "Different methods of killing were discussed there."
Even though the only remaining copy of the minutes contains disguised formulations, the document is still an exception with regard to the clarity of the intentions, said historian Peter Longerich.
This is evidenced by the fact that the crime of the century enjoyed the support of all conference participants: the SS, Justice Ministry, Interior Ministry, Foreign Ministry, the arms industry — and of course, the National Socialist Party.
Yet still, even after 1945, high-ranking Nazis had the audacity to claim that they hadn't known anything. They included leading Nazi party members like Hermann Göring and Alfred Rosenberg, a significant Nazi ideologue and minister for the occupied eastern territories.
Apart from the extermination of the Jews, Reinhard Heydrich was pursuing yet another plan only a few months before he himself was assassinated. If the Soviet Union were defeated, the high-ranking Nazis wanted to employ masses of Jews as road workers.
"Although undoubtedly a large part will have diminished due to natural decline," is written on Page 7 of the minutes. Whatever was left of the "remains" would have to be "treated accordingly."
This is an updated version of an article first published on January 19, 2017. It was originally written in German.